“I think I terrify a lot of people,” Akiva tells me, only half-kidding as he balances his unicycle in the middle of the Rocky Classroom, the collegiate Gothic nook where biweekly symposia for students in the Humanities Sequence take place.
This Sunday in particular, Akiva Jackson, one of these students, brought to the symposium both his essay on Rodin’s sculpture “Orpheus and Eurydice” and a bright red unicycle. After seeing it around campus so often, I had asked Akiva if I could interview him about his lived (and probably very strange) experiences relying on a unicycle as a primary method of transportation on and around Princeton’s campus.
“I’ve always liked to be different,” Akiva begins. He tells me how he took to unicycling and juggling for his high school PE requirement under the instruction of a bona fide clown. “I just love the whimsy of it… and seeing how people react is telling. Some will move ten feet out of my way, and some will just keep walking. They let you take unicycles on public transportation, partially because they’re small and partially because they don’t know what to say—so they don’t say anything.
“Every once in a while, though, there’s someone who looks at me with just such disdain,” Akiva answers. “I think it’s because they see what I’m doing as egotistical. It’s a moralizing glance: they’re thinking, you’re making a fool of yourself and a show of yourself. But it is super exhibitionist,” he admits. “Everyone notices a unicycle, and to some extent I enjoy that.”
Academically, Akiva is most interested in moral psychology, so it comes as no surprise that he often reflects about the ethical dimensions of his daily one-wheel, one-man show—about “whether it’s just an ego move,” as he says, an accusation not too far from the antagonistic remarks which some of the very first bicycles—Ordinary bicycles—received on the streets of 1870s England.
In “King of the Road: The Social Construction of the Safety Bicycle” (1995), scholar of technology and society Wiebe E. Bijker investigates what determined both the Ordinary bicycle’s invention, who could use it, and who couldn’t. Bijker explains that “bicycling still had, as in the early days of the hobbyhorse, an element of showing off.” Surprisingly, bikes started off not as a means of transport but as “sport machine[s]”, meaning “the typical bicyclist […] had to be young, athletic and well-to-do”—in most places, then, there were far more non-riders to judge the vehicle than there were riders to use it.
I tell Akiva about this past antagonism, since he sometimes seems to experience a similar reaction while riding around Princeton (albeit in smaller doses). Bicycles blend in now, but the original Ordinary model, with its ostentatious front wheel, resembles the unicycle more so than anything else—its smaller back wheel looks vestigial, as if to brag that one day the rider won’t need it. Yet this isn’t the evolution that happened: today’s culture has selected for two identically sized wheels, but Akiva stands by his choice to ride on one wheel instead.
“I revel in the unicycle as a full-body experience,” he tells me, his posture erect as if he were riding in that moment. “Unlike a bike with a static pose, if you stop pedaling a unicycle you’ll fly off.”
“It’s more reciprocal than a bike,” I reply. “Once you’re on a unicycle it demands something from you.”
“Yeah! I can dance on a unicycle in a way I can’t dance on a bike. It feels like a part of me in a way a bike doesn’t. And it replaces my legs in a way that incorporates them.”
My first impulse is to call Akiva’s experience with his unicycle a “prosthetic” one—though the more I think about unicycles as prosthetics, the more I realize that they deeply fail to fall into this category, or at least deeply fail to “pass” as what they replace, to both onlookers and the user. “My profile on a unicycle is much closer to my profile standing,” Akiva says, “but I have to stay tense the whole time.” These are the makings of a poor prosthetic indeed.
Occasionally, however, there are moments when Akiva’s unicycling is “passing,” or at least it goes unseen. He spends a lot of time on the Princeton towpath, exercising by himself in the woods, where he’s reminded that getting people’s attention isn’t the only (or the most important) reason he unicycles. And even sometimes when he wants people’s attention, he doesn’t get it at all. Before we switch gears to the Rodin sculpture, the last story Akiva tells me is about how last year, while studying at a yeshiva, he decided one day to unicycle down the West Bank border. “I waved at people putting up laundry in a Palestinian village, but they didn’t notice me—it was a funny inversion of what I’m used to.”